Riding a three-game winning streak and holders of a 2-0 record in SEC play, the Auburn Tigers travel to Fayetteville for a contest against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena Wednesday.
Blue Ribbon Yearbook picked Arkansas (10-5, 1-1 SEC) to finish sixth in the conference this season, and College Basketball Prospectus had the Razorbacks at No. 35 in the nation in the preseason. Currently, Arkansas is ranked No. 64 and projected as a 12-point winner over the Tigers by Ken Pomeroy. In spite of a winning record, the Razorbacks dropped its big non-conference games against Wisconsin (77-70), Syracuse (91-82) and Michigan (80-67). In SEC competition, the Hogs opened with a 69-51 road loss at Texas A&M and rebounded with a 56-33 home win over Vanderbilt.
Birmingham native Mike Anderson is in his second season at Arkansas after successful stints as head coach at UAB, where his teams won 20-plus games in each of his four seasons, and Missouri, where his Tigers went to the NCAA Tournament five times, including an Elite Eight run in 2009. His first year in Fayetteville ended with an 18-14 record, including 6-10 in conference play. The Razorbacks, employing Anderson's press defense, did lead the league in steals last season, averaging 8.3 per game, and turnover margin of +3.25. This season, Arkansas is third in the SEC with 9.4 per game.
The projected lineup for the Razorbacks includes sophomore forward Hunter Mickelson (6'10, 245), junior forward Marshawn Powell (6'7, 240), junior guard Rickey Scott (6'3, 205), sophomore guard B.J. Young (6'3, 180) and junior guard Fred Gulley (6'2, 177). Powell is back from a knee injury that only allowed him to play in the first two games last season. He went 8-of-9 against Vanderbilt and compiled 17 points, six rebounds and six steals. Powell leads his team in rebounds -- 29 offensive and 52 defensive -- for an average of 5.4 per contest, and he is second on the team in scoring average (14.3 ppg). Young, after a big freshman year, leads the team in scoring average (17.1 ppg) and field goal attempts, making good on 95-of-200. Mickelson has the team's best free throw percentage at 85.7 percent and most blocks with 23 on the season. Expect to see junior forward Coty Clarke (6'7, 225) an junior guard Mardracus Wade (6'2, 176) play key roles off the bench.
Anderson's Razorbacks emphasize an uptempo pace and full-court press. His teams routinely force more turnovers than anyone else's and often prioritize a blocked shot over a defensive rebound. As the Tigers have continued to improve incrementally on defense, are they ready to handle Powell, who is shooting 44.8 percent from behind the three-point arc? Junior guard Kikko Haydar (5'10, 162) has connected on 12-of-22 three-pointers, and Wade, Clarke and Scott are all potential candidates to have a good night of long-range shooting, as well. With ten of fifteen players on the roster shooting over 40 percent from the field, the Tigers cannot fall into a slump or squander a lead. An Auburn fan has to wonder how the Tigers will stand up to a much tougher road opponent than South Carolina.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. CT. The game will be televised on the SEC Network and audio available on the Auburn IMG Network / XM 199.
Tony Barbee on Arkansas
"We have a tough week this week obviously going to Arkansas, which is a tough place to play. Arkansas is a very impressive team at home. They are almost night and day with the way they play at home and on the road with how aggressive they are in their press. So, we are going to have to do a good job taking care of the ball. Then, we come back home on Saturday against a very good Kentucky team. Every week in the SEC is a difﬁcult week, but it is one we are looking forward to."
What is working for Auburn?
"There are a lot of different things that are starting to come together. The biggest thing is the younger guys, Brian Greene, Shaquille Johnson, Jordon Granger, who helped us the last game, Asauhn Dixon-Tatum ... all the new guys this year are starting to understand what it takes to play and compete and to win at this level. Coupled with that, the chemistry between the veteran, the older guys, the juniors and seniors on this team and then the younger guys has started to converge and get to grow and get better because those younger guys are catching up to speed on what it is to compete and to win at this level."
What do you see differently from Arkansas home and on the road and do you prepare for them differently?
"They just seem to be more aggressive, and that is typically what you see out of teams that press like they do. As aggressive as they are defensively, they feed off of their crowd in terms of the intensity of the noise. It is always one of the best crowds in the country, and the home court advantage of Arkansas. They are just more aggressive in that way at home. So, we are just going to have to do a good job of leaning on our veteran players and not letting the pressure and the atmosphere affect us."